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film review

Charlize Theron stars in Atomic Blonde.Jonathan Prime/Handout

There are few filmmakers working today as bold as David Leitch.

Maybe bold isn't quite the right word. Brazen? Shameless? Outrageous? There are a host of adjectives you must slap on someone when their film – their feature debut but also not quite (more on that later) – decides to include the line, "Sampling: Is it art or is it plagiarism?" The fact that this barely heard snippet of background dialogue pops up late in the film, after Leitch has borrowed from the greats who came before him but also literally torn a strip off Andrei Tarkovsky (more on that later, too), pushes the boldness, the sheer insanity of it, further. Perhaps to a point of no return. Which is what Atomic Blonde feels like more often than not – the end-game of modern action cinema, a deliriously dizzying high point that won't, and maybe shouldn't, be topped any time soon.

Let's rewind things for a moment, which, as it's a narrative trick Leitch is so fond of employing, I feel no guilt over appropriating here. Atomic Blonde kicks off promising answers to a host of Hollywood dilemmas.

First, it gives Charlize Theron her first legitimate shot at being an action star, a long overdue gift to a performer who has time and again proven her genre worth but has never had the chance to shine solo. (Aeon Flux, her first attempt, was a studio-meddled wash. She came closest in Mad Max: Fury Road, but had to compete with the title character and a flame-spewing guitarist named the Doof. And then she took a giant step back in The Fate of the Furious, which didn't even let her near a car, an act far more criminal than anything Dominic Toretto has committed across his eight films.)

In Atomic Blonde, Leitch wisely lets Theron loose and ensures no one gets in her way. As the lithe, extraordinarily deadly spy Lorraine Broughton, the most British name in the history of espionage, Theron expertly mixes the chilliness of a thousand-yard stare with the sharpness of a knife as her character saunters around Cold War-era Berlin. She will kill you, and because Theron is so committed to Lorraine's icy cool, you will thank her for doing so. The first time she cracks someone's skull, that ripple sound you're hearing is a thousand studio executives slapping their own heads so hard that they, too, fracture, so ashamed are they for not thinking of this movie first.

Which brings us to the other problem Atomic Blonde offers a solution to – how to deliver an action movie that is not a remake, reboot or CGI-laden rehash. Here, former stunt co-ordinator Leitch is successful, but in a perverse, backwards way. The story is based on a graphic novel, so that's one strike against it, even if the source material isn't as well-known as even the most third-tier Marvel comic. But the execution is more complicated to untangle, in that Leitch seems incapable of crafting a single frame that doesn't echo a thousand other films.

There's the shaky camerwork of Paul Greengrass's Bourne films, the neon-nightmare set design of Nicolas Winding Refn, the impossibly narrow-street chase scenes native to any of Luc Besson's Eurotrash classics. Most critically, there's an ambitious and astonishing eight-minute-long, single-take action sequence that mixes Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men with the gonzo gun-fu of Chad Stahelski's John Wick. At least the latter makes sense, as Leitch co-directed that Keanu Reeves curiosity, though didn't get an official credit. (He would've returned for the sequel, too, but Atomic Blonde's shoot conflicted with the production.)

It all shouldn't work as well as it does, but there is something about Leitch's readiness to acknowledge his aesthetic theft that smoothes out any of the many rough edges. And, sure, he gets bonus and somewhat easy cinema-theory points for setting a fight against a projected backdrop of Tarkovsky's 1979 eternal classic Stalker.

Combined with a sleek, if obvious, soundtrack and a host of visual gags that will only play better with time (the main bad guy literally stabs himself in the back), and Atomic Blonde adds up to a genre riot.

Oh, right. The plot. Well, just like Leitch, I kind of forgot about it. Lorraine is basically thrown into some East Berlin/West Berlin shenanigans that play like Bridge of Spies meets Crank. Tasked with finding that old genre MacGuffin, a list of double agents – why do spies keep making lists like this? – Lorraine navigates a needlessly complex web of Le Carre facsimilies. There's a maybe-friendly MI6 agent who's gone to seed (James McAvoy, parlaying his natural sleaze to good effect for once), a frustrated CIA honcho (John Goodman) and at least half a dozen other characters of dubious allegiances and/or narrative importance. But the twist-laden story is only there to move Theron's heroine from one fight scene to the next, and in that, Kurt Johnstad's script succeeds marvelously.

Atomic Blonde is bold, brazen and frequently bonkers. But it's also killer.

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